Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists, exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—

Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.

Leticia: Masi Asare is an assistant professor of theatre and performance studies at Northwestern University. She is a songwriter and dramatist and also works as a performance scholar specializing in the study of race and vocal sound and musicals. A Tony-nominated lyricist, her work includes Paradise Square and Monsoon Wedding. She has also been commissioned by Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Lilly Awards, and Marvel.

Jordan: Her scholarly book, Blues Mamas and Broadway Belters: Black Women, Voice, and the Musical Stage, is forthcoming from Duke University Press this October 2024. A past Dramatists Guild Fellow and Kaplan Institute for the Humanities Fellow, honors include the inaugural Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award for a woman composer of musicals, a grant from the Theatre Hall of Fame, and inclusion on the Women to Watch on Broadway list.

Masi has also published with Concord Theatricals, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Journal of Popular Music Studies, TDR, the Routledge Companion to Musical Theatre, and Performance Matters. This episode is an interview with Masi as we learn about her work as an artist-scholar of musical theatre.

Jordan: Hello, hello, hello. Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine, and we are so, so excited to have Masi Asare on the podcast. We’ve wanted to interview Masi for quite a while, so we’re really, really excited to have her join us for today.

Masi Asare: Thank you so much for having me.

Leticia: We are so excited because, as you know, we know each other for our scholarly work, but we also have talked so much on the podcast about Black women, specifically in musical theatre, and you are one of the Black women in musical theatre. And basically, for us, we’re like, “Black women rarely ever get their shine in musical theatre.”

We know we’re out there, but we seem to be in enclaves and hidden from the mainstream, which is not necessarily meaning that Black women composers and librettists want to be a part of the mainstream per se, but just to say, if you are someone that has an interest within musical theatre, where do you go to see people, who look like you, doing the thing that you may be interested in doing or just a fan of? So we’re so excited to have you with us today.

Masi: Thank you. Yeah. I think about this a lot. I mean, I know this is one of the questions you all have. And I’ll just say, as we’re getting started, in a certain sense, I do best not thinking about it too much and just keeping my head down and doing my work, and meeting the people that I want to meet, and doing my best to encourage other artists. I try to do some mentoring whenever I can.

And pretty much if anybody emails me—well, now I’m leaving the door wide open—but if anybody emails me and is like, “I’m a Black woman who’s writing musicals, and I want to talk to you,” I’m like, “Great.” So I do try to keep my door open and support and encourage, but I also can’t get too weighed down in it. I will also say, a couple years ago, I realized that I was only the fifth Black woman to ever be nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Original Score of a Musical.

And it really hit me hard to realize that, because in my scholarly research, I studied Black women performers and who’s been nominated for Tony Awards and who were the early winners of Tony Awards among the performers, but I had not really, for whatever reason, done that close of a look at the writers and composers.

Anyway, so one thing I will say is, I really reflected at that time, and I still think about this a lot. I do not have any illusions that I have more talent than anybody who came before me. The fact that there have been so few of us is a reflection of the opportunities that were available, the doors that simply were not open. There are many, many, many, many, many more Black women composers, lyricists, librettists who could have been in the spotlight had the doors been open. So that’s one thing I usually just say. When people are like, “But there are so few,” I’m like, “People have not been invited in. It’s not that there was not the talent.”

Jordan: I mean, you know how I feel about that. You are part of my research, Masi, on Black women composers. I am a huge admirer of your work as a scholar, but also as an artist. And I remember when you posted that graphic on Instagram, and it was something that I had taken notice of just because it was a part of my scholarly work. And I totally agree that it’s not the talent, it’s the opportunity. I think that’s incredibly succinct and brilliant way of putting that.

Part of the work that you and I are doing is locating that Black women have always been here, but also saying that they still are here. It’s not like we’ve gone anywhere. So I really appreciate you saying that.

So, with all of that being said, what was the draw to theatre? How did you come to theatre, and musical theatre specifically?

Masi: Yeah. It’s interesting. So no one in my family is in the theatre. There are actually a number of composers on my father’s side. My dad is from Ghana in West Africa, and there are a number of distinguished composers. I think it’s my great uncle who composed the Ghana national anthem. I might be getting this wrong. I should know my family history better. But we have some distinguished composers and musicians on my dad’s side.

And my mom—So I’m mixed-race, so I identify as Black and mixed-race—and my mom is white. Her family is from Norway and Appalachia. And so, they say that my great-grandmother, who was from Appalachia, had a beautiful singing voice. So I kind of traced my musical roots on those sides. But nobody was into the theatre, and my family was like, “What is this? What is this thing that you’re into?” They’re like writers and engineers and academics, and I just kind of got bit by the bug.

And my family was kind of, like I said, really all about academics. They also were kind of into the simple life. So I did not have a television growing up, which I’m a little bitter about, because I was the MTV generation, and I feel like I missed out on the major cultural event of my generation. I’m still a little bit salty about it.

So we just read a lot. I literally would just go through a stack of books a week. I read like crazy. My siblings were the same, and I took piano lessons. And when I realized that there was this thing where you could have music and stories together, called musical theatre, I kind of lost my mind, and I just never looked back.

I remember I grew up in a college town, and all the touring shows would come through. And from the time that I was fourteen, I called up and said, “I know there’s a volunteer usher corp. Can I volunteer?” So I volunteer ushered for all of the touring shows that came through town, and I saw everything that way, and I did community theatre. And that was sort of how I found my way to the theatre, even though nobody in my family really knew what it was or had context for it.

The fact that there have been so few of us is a reflection of the opportunities that were available, the doors that simply were not open. 

Leticia: Right. Right. That’s so interesting. None of my family is in the theatre or interested in theatre, even though I will say I have two young nieces who very much love musical theatre, which is nice to sort of share that with them, that I’m like, “Oh, yes. Finally, a kindred spirit with my nieces, my young nieces, who enjoy something that I enjoy.” So whenever I go home, we go see something. So that’s really interesting.

So you talk a bit about being bit by the bug, volunteering to be an usher. When were you like, “I want to pursue this professionally”? Was there a particular moment or mentor that led you to really take musical theatre seriously as a career and a profession?

Masi: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, even to this day, I sort of feel like, “Is it a profession? Can I make my living doing this?” I still have my university job, and I’m very grateful. I’m very grateful to have this dual track because it’s not an easy road to actually make a living as a writer in the theatre. 

I guess, I had a college job, I mean, I think, like so many of us, I thought I was going to be a performer. That dream was somewhat short-lived. But I had a summer job, and then it became a job during the academic year in college, where I wound up writing songs for children’s musicals for a youth theatre outside of Boston. So it was this really fun place that would put on original musical plays with kids.

And in the summertime… I worked there when I think I was nineteen years old. It was the summer after my freshman year, and there was a songwriter there who since has become… I forget what his new title is. It’s not marketing director. It’s like some other fancier title at Concord Theatricals. We’ve stayed friends since then. But at the time, he was the staff songwriter, and he would just write three, four songs a week for these shows.

And I always say—Jim Colleran is his name—I’m like, “Jim, I kind of learned to write songs from you,” because then, during the school year, he was off doing something else. I had sort of witnessed his process that summer. So in my sophomore year, they said, “Masi, can you put some lyrics to some existing songs?” I think it was a song from Mame, and they were like, “We’re sending this story in this different context, and we want to use this song. Can you just write some lyrics?” And I was like, “I think I can write a song.”

So I just started writing songs for these children’s theatre productions. The stakes were very low. The parents were happy no matter what. But I had to write very fast, and I kind of learned that way. There was usually a song that was like, “Welcome to our world.” And then there was a song that was like, “The monster is coming.” And then there was a song that was like, “We killed the monster!” It was a little formulaic, but I learned a lot about how you weave in underscoring and how you build tension, and I would live-accompany the shows.

And so, I think that’s really… It was a fun and kind of low-pressure, in a way, context to just start writing songs for the theatre. Then I will say, after I moved to New York in my early twenties, I was auditioning for things, and then I auditioned for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, which is one of the workshops in town. At the time, it was one of the very few, and now there are many, many more. It’s kind of a famous place.

And I remember that that audition was so easy compared to all these other auditions I had been going on to. Ragtime had just come out, and I was doing all these Ragtime auditions. And it was just like, I was always trying to fit into somebody’s box, and I wasn’t quite this enough, and I wasn’t quite that enough, and they called me back for Bombay Dreams.

It was just like, I couldn’t figure out what was happening in the performer world. And then I had an audition for the songwriting workshop, and all I had to do was sit at the piano and play my songs. And something about it just felt right, and I was like, “This is the best audition I’ve been on in a while.” And so, I think that was kind of a real turning moment, too.

Jordan: Oh my God, that’s such a cool story, and I love that you got started in children’s theatre. I think that’s amazing. And I think that theatre for youth or children’s theatre oftentimes doesn’t get enough attention for the ways it can open us up imaginatively. And so, I love that that was where you got your start. So kind of keeping on with talking about songwriting, we’d love to hear about how you actually go about writing the song. What cracks open that new idea, and what is your approach to songwriting?

Masi: Yeah. It’s funny you ask, because I have many songs that I’m supposed to be writing today, and I’m like, “What will my process be?” I think I have to say, I really like to write songs for story, and I’d write my best songs that way, when the dramatic situation is very specific. I have a hard time just writing a song from how I feel that day, which is why I don’t often write songs outside of theatre.

Sometimes I write to really specific political or cultural contexts. I’ll kind of have these cabaret songs that will come out, or sort of just, I don’t know, more sort of politically motivated songs. But they’re also sparked by really specific circumstances. So for me, I have to know what’s the dramatic context for the song, why the song needs to arise in this moment. Otherwise, it’s very difficult for me to get going.

Then what I often do, it depends. Sometimes I write book, music, lyrics. It’s harder. I’m working on a musical right now with a really wonderful collaborator, and it’s so much easier. I’m so happy to be writing music and lyrics and know that the script is beautifully taken care of. I actually have a couple of projects like that, and it’s really wonderful.

Sometimes the librettist, the book writer, can give you a monologue to work from, and then you can see what pops out for you there. But often what I’ll do if I’m writing music and lyrics is, I’ll kind of do two processes. One is, I will try to figure out what kind of musical landscape I want to live in. Musical style is really important to me. I think about it a lot as a function of character. And so, I’ll think about, “Well, what’s the kind of sound world I want this number to live in?”

And then I’ll kind of tinker a little bit at the piano and get some shapes. It’s all kind of sketch. I’ll sketch at the piano and with my voice, and I’ll have a little bit of a musical world. And then the other thing I do for lyrics is I free write. I free write text that I think this character would be saying in the moment, with no judgment. Whatever comes out, comes out.

And then I’ll go back through what I’ve free-written and see what kind of stands out, and then I’ll take that to the piano. And I don’t really know how to say it. I kind of like just let them settle into each other, this sound world and this emotional world with some key phrases. And usually, a hook, a title of the song will start to emerge, and I’ll just run from there. I feel like I’m not being very articulate, but that’s kind of how I work, I guess.

Leticia: You definitely are. And I think it’s also just important to hear about how our processes can be different. I’m not a composer or lyricist by any means, but the way that I write my academic work is very different than a lot of people. Right? So I think it’s important to discuss process and how we come, and to know that one size does not fit all. Yeah. The books may be helpful, but not everyone wakes up at 6:00 a.m. and writes for three hours before their day starts.

Masi: Oh. Well, no, not everyone does that…Well, I will say it’s interesting. I’m back in New York now. I divide my time between Chicago and New York, and I was in Chicago for a couple weeks recently. And I will say I had a big deadline, and I just went underground and just wrote. And in that sense, it is sometimes helpful for me to… Sometimes I’m better at it than other times, but to not check email. Well, definitely not check email, but not get on social media, like nothing, until at least 1:00 p.m. Just keep the morning clear so I can wake up and go directly into the work.

Sometimes I’m better or less better, better or worse, at that. But I think, I wanted to say, when you were talking about process, and also since you started talking about Black women in musicals, a piece of advice that I got from Kirsten Childs that was so helpful to me, that I always mention to other writers, I feel like… I had my first big commission for a new musical, book, music, lyrics, and I was talking to Kirsten. Someone had just introduced us, and I forget. I was just stressed.

I had a deadline and I had to turn these songs around, and I was not sure how to do it. And she told me that before she writes—she has a dance background, so she was an incredible dancer on Broadway—so she said that before she writes, she does deep breathing. And this kind of blew my mind, kind of like how, if you’re going to dance, you need to warm up. But no one had ever mentioned to me that before you write, you might need to have some kind of a clearing process or some kind of a preparation.

I was literally going to the piano and my shoulders were up to my ears with stress, and I was just trying to write a song. And that made a really big impression on me. I now have a little checklist of things I do before I write that I call Opening the Channel and, after I write called Closing the Channel, because I have found that, especially if I’m working on personal material or material that makes me very emotional, after I’m writing, I can feel like I’m just walking through the world like an open wound if I haven’t just found a way for that process to end and close the channel. So that’s something that I learned from Kirsten.

Leticia: That’s such wonderful advice that I’m actually going to be more mindful of thinking about that when I do the work that I’m doing, because you’re absolutely right. No one tells you, “I was an athlete for most of my life. I just didn’t get up and go on the court and just play. There was a process for me to warm up my body in order to do the thing that I was out there to do.” Right? So it makes so much sense. Why wouldn’t writing be the same? That is great advice. That is amazing.

One thing that’s often said about blues singers, but also Black women singers in any historical era, is that they are “untrained.”And I really do not like this term. I refute it.

Masi: One hundred percent. I actually have a checklist both for my scholarly work and for my creative work, because there are different things that I need to get ready. But yeah, I call them Opening and Closing the Channel. So that’s one thing.

Leticia: Yeah. Listeners, take that advice. That’s amazing, amazing advice. I have another question before we sort of jump into your academic work. I have noticed this trend of musical theatre numbers finding their way into television shows, and I think it was… Oh, man. Was it Run the World or Harlem? It was Harlem, I think. It was Harlem.

Masi: Harlem. Yes.

Leticia: Yes. Harlem, where they had Get Out: The Musical, and it was sort of a satire, parody of Get Out, and one of the characters is an actress. And then I’ve seen something like that in Marvel.

Masi: Yes. In Hawkeye, in the Hawkeye series. Yes. It’s kind of like a Hamilton parody on… What’s his name? Captain America. I forget what the character’s name is. Rogers, Steve Rogers. Right. Rogers: The Musical. Yeah.

Leticia: Yup. Yup. Exactly. Exactly. And I just noticed this trend for… Musical theatre is a popular form. Right? It’s always existed in this realm of popular, but then I juxtapose it with people not knowing that The Color Purple was a musical and movie musicals not always doing well. And “popular,” I think, is a term that we can unpack a bit more, but it seems to be finding its way, even if a show is not a musical, in TV shows. And I just wondered if you had any sort of thoughts about that trend or why musical theatre or musical theatre numbers are popular or seems to be increasingly more popular within TV.

Masi: It’s an interesting question. I think, in a way, it’s been going on for a while. Right? And as I have given my disclaimers, I’m not always up on all the TV stuff, given my flawed upbringing on that front. But I do remember back in the day, there was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. That was a really big deal. You can think about shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

There was also, in terms of early web series, I’m going to get the name of this wrong, but Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along. I can’t remember the name of the show, but I’ll have to look it up and send it to you afterwards. But it was one of these early web series that was very famous and has a cult following now, sort of like a superhero musical. So I think there have been these things for a while.

I do think with the Steve Rogers… It’s so funny. I remember seeing that in Hawkeye, and I had been working on a couple Marvel things, and I messaged the folks that I knew and I was like, “Hey, if you need some musicals, give me a call.” But whatever. It’s all good. I think they actually have made that Rogers musical into a live stage production. I saw something about this last year, maybe at one of the theme parks or something.

I think that show is a direct offshoot of Hamilton. And also, interestingly enough, now we’re just getting into Marvelness, but the Captain America character has kind of like a musical theatre lineage. If you think back to those 1940s, he was in this variety show with all these showgirls. And Alan Menken wrote this very 1940s, all-American show tune for him and his character, and I forget which movie that was from. So he kind of has this musical theatre lineage in a way. So it’s interesting that it comes out in this more Hamilton-esque musical in recent years. I can’t remember what the other show was that you mentioned that also had a number.

Leticia: Harlem. Harlem. Harlem, which I think is interesting, because that show is very Black. Right? It’s a very Black show. And I don’t know, again, I have not done any research on this, if shows that are catered towards a Black audience is using musical theatre. I don’t know. Is there a TV show that did a whole musical theatre episode that was catered towards… Sister, Sister didn’t do an all-musical theatre episode.

Masi: Right. Right. We’re going to think of something as soon as we get off the phone. But yes, I think… I will say I remember seeing that Get Out parody on Harlem on Prime, and I thought it was so funny. There was one song in particular. I can’t remember what it was called. It was something like “Liberal White Parents” was the name of the song, or something like that, and I was like, “Ooh, this is smart. Who worked on this?”

And, of course, I looked at the songwriters. And if you didn’t know, Sukari Jones, who is a Black woman lyricist, was one of the songwriters on that, along with Pasek and Paul. Sukari has been doing a lot of work out in Hollywood. She was a writer on one of the new musicals that Pasek and Paul did, one of the film musicals. I can’t remember which one it was. And Khiyon Hursey, another Black writer, has also been doing a lot of film and TV as well.

So we have some voices that are kind of making some inroads in that scene. But I remember hearing that song and being like, “Who wrote this?” And I know Sukari. She has a wicked sense of humor and is a super smart lyricist. Kind of, I think, came through the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program maybe around the same time as Michael R. Jackson, like comparable. And so, yeah, just a wicked sense of humor and very sharp lyrics. So I thought those were very smart numbers.

Jordan: Yes. Oh my gosh, we love that, Get Out, so much. Yes. I remember that “White Liberal Parents.” It’s like (singing). A brilliant song. Incredible. Yeah. Really looking forward to experiencing more of Sukari’s work.

So we’ve heard a little bit about your creative practice and your artistry. As an artist-scholar, you’re also working on significant research projects, and one of those big ones is your book, Blues Mamas and Broadway Belters, which is going to be coming out from Duke University Press. I’m so freaking excited. I’ve been waiting for this book for so long. But yeah, tell us a little bit about that project and what folks might be expecting when we pick that up this October.

Masi: Absolutely. Yeah. So it’s interesting. It’s been a many-year project. I’m very excited that it’s coming into the world this year. And I think part of what’s been exciting to me about this book project is finding a way to bring together my creative practice and my scholarly work. So even before I really became a songwriter, I always taught voice lessons. And it was actually the way I made my living back in the day in between all those restaurant jobs and substitute teaching, and just trying to audition and keep it together. I always taught voice lessons, and I always studied voice.

And so, a lot of what I do in the book is listen really closely to not only the voices of singers, but also what singers say about their own singing, what singers say about their own voices and about their own singing. And part of what I’m trying to do in the book is a little bit of a move where, as I’m sure you’re aware, one thing that’s often said about blues singers, but also Black women singers in any historical era, is that they are “untrained.”

And I really do not like this term. I refute it. And I want to talk about the many different contexts in which training can take place. Right? Did training take place on the vaudeville circuit with Bessie Smith touring with Ma Rainey and sharing a stage and writing songs together and learning from the more senior star? Did it take place, in the case of Ethel Waters, at the elbow of the Black woman accompanist and voice coach? Not just the white, Tin Pan Alley songwriters. Right?

In Ethel Waters’s case, it’s quite fascinating. She often got these songs, and she would say, “Let me take this home. I’m going to work on it with Pearl.” And Pearl was her accompanist. And then she would come back, and they would do it in a more blues style. And then some of those songs have become very, very well-known. So what were the different contexts in which Black women singers learned to sing, learned their repertoire, and, in the course of learning their repertoire, also learned technique?

So I sort of trace a series of historical voice lessons. Often, it’s said or assumed that Broadway belting began more or less with someone like Ethel Merman, or maybe hearkening back to the great Sophie Tucker. But Sophie Tucker specifically asked Ethel Waters to give her a voice lesson. You can kind of go back in the history and see the line being passed along of who is carrying whose voice in their body. And so, I like to think about different ways of understanding what Broadway belting is when it’s done by singers of all different ethnicities.

I could say more, but that’s kind of where I start. And then I go on. I look at the Black torch singer in the 1930s with Ethel Waters, and it’s a very different kind of torch singer persona than the white torch singers are able to inhabit. Right? Oftentimes, there’s this world-weary sophisticate leaning against a lamppost in a pool of soft moonlight. Well, Ethel Waters often sang her torch songs with a basket of laundry under her arm, and a different kind of weariness and a different kind of prayerfulness that she was asked to perform.

So I write about that as sort of the persona of the weary, bluesy mammy that these singers were asked to perform. And then singers that refused to do that, singers like Ethel… Sorry, like Pearl Bailey and Juanita Hall, who sort of asked listeners to hear their voices in different ways. I could say more, but I don’t want to go on and on. But Juanita Hall is quite fascinating, because she performed in yellowface for most of her career. Right? A fair-skinned Black woman from New Jersey, but she’s best known for Bloody Mary in South Pacific, which is a character who is from what is now known as Vietnam. Right?

So she literally was playing an Asian character. She was the first actor cast in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, which is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. So she literally was doing all these yellowface characters, even though we celebrate her as the first Black woman who won a Tony Award for her Bloody Mary in South Pacific turn. It’s quite a complicated history to reckon with.

I also listen to how she was singing in blues clubs, and sort of had this operatic career, but also this blues career and how can we hear her voice in different ways. And then I go on and look at the kind of glamour girls and starlets and sex kittens of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the first two Black women to win Tonys for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, Diahann Carroll and Leslie Uggams. And we cannot forget Eartha Kitt. Although she has often been overlooked, she actually has more Broadway credits than many of the women of that era, and I think about her as well.

So those are some of the things I do. And then I guess I should say, since I’m giving a monologue here, I sort of go through these different historical eras of Black women singers. And as I’ve said, I’ve been looking at or trying to pay attention to how these singers were also voice teachers, really Broadway’s voice teachers, and how they listened to and learned from one another. I also look at Lena Horne as a kind of voice teacher for some of the young Black starlets who came up after her, despite the fact that she refused and was refused opportunities on Broadway and really rarely appeared on Broadway as a young starlet. But she kind of had her lessons to impart for the next generation.

So having done this, locating these Black women singers in this line of voice pedagogy, the final chapter is about historical voice pedagogy across the long twentieth century and the way that it often understands belting or other kinds of pop singing as, quote, unquote, “unhealthy,” and what we can make of that and think our way through it as we’re thinking about all of us who are now singing in styles that were innovated by these Black women artists.

Leticia: Wow. I’m really excited about it. I’ve heard you speak about the book for quite some time now. So I’m excited to have it on my desk and to really dive in and read it. And even when you were talking, I was just thinking about Tracy Chapman, who just performed, for the first time in a long time, on the Grammy stage. And I think about my own work with… I don’t work on musical theatre or Broadway per se. I tangentially dip my toe in every so often.

But I think about Beyoncé and I think about her documenting her own training and her own work to undercut this idea that what she does is just, like you said, untrained. It’s just natural. She just gets up there and does what she does. But no, she has actually made a concerted effort to track her training and to show the public that what you see in a Beyoncé performance or on an album is something that takes a lot of training and a lot of work.

So I think that’s specifically important when we think about Black women performers broadly, I think. So I’m really excited about your book, and I think it has far reach beyond the musical stage or musical theatre scholarship, and it will definitely make an imprint there. But I’m just thinking with you, how your work is definitely going to influence my own. So I’m really excited to dive deep into it.

Masi: Thank you. I mean, there’s so many of us. We know these things, but we have to put words to them so that other people can see them as well. And you’re absolutely right. And I’m certainly not the first person who has critiqued the idea that Black women singers spontaneously manifest their sound, as you’re saying, also in the case of Beyoncé. There’s just this idea that like, “Oh, she’s just feeling it. She just gets up there and feels it.” And that can really disavow the artistry, the work, the labor of the artist that is going into that.

And so, I just feel like it’s really of vital importance. I will also say one thing that really surprised me in the course of doing this research. I mean, when I set out back in the day, it grew out of my doctoral dissertation, I sort of intuited that the Broadway belt sound had aspects of… I don’t know. How can I say this?

Well, think about this. This is another way I often talk about it. If you look at classical conservatories, jazz singers and opera singers are segregated. They’re not allowed to sing together. There’s, to this day, a widespread perception that singing things like jazz, gospel, rock will ruin… That’s literally the word that’s used, will ruin a classical singer’s voice. Right? So there are these segregated tracks.

And I sort of have been interested in the way that musical theatre is kind of a zone of musical miscegenation, that it is messy. We do train in multiple vocal styles for musical theatre, but why is it that… And it seems so clear to me that these things were sort of racially cordoned off. But what I found was that in the case of Broadway belting, it has become so identified with white women that some of the sort of narratives around that have become so subsumed. It was difficult to parse.

And nonetheless, this narrative around Broadway belting being innate, spontaneous talent, which is something that Ethel Merman certainly espoused, is something that has carried over. So it’s really quite fascinating to think about. There’s still a mythology around, “Well, some people can just belt. They can just do it”, in a similar way, but to different ends, than “Well, some women can just riff,” or whatever it is.

I always say to young writers, “What we have to notice is what moves us.” What’s useful as a writer is noticing what I respond to. Then I could have something to take with me. If I really did not respond to it, I also learned something from that.

Leticia: Right. Right. Right. That’s so fascinating. That’s absolutely fascinating.

But do you have a favorite musical?

Masi: Oh, people ask this all the time. I should be getting better at answering it. I don’t. I don’t have a favorite musical. I will say this, and I tell this to my students. I feel like there is something to be learned from everything, even the things that you actively dislike. And so, I’m less interested in just liking things than I am in learning from them. I’m so hungry to improve my craft.

That said, some of the musicals that I return to are things like Into the Woods. I return to that, I think, in some ways because it’s one of the first musicals that I encountered that really is not about a heterosexual love story at its heart. It is about the relationships between children and adults, children and parents. That’s the heart of the piece, which you find, again, with things like Fun Home. It’s not like that’s the only show that does that, but it made a big impression on me at the time when I saw it, when it first came out.

I return to Passing Strange. I think the book is so razor-sharp in that show. I love the music. I love the West Coast vibe of that music. Structurally, I return to Fiddler on the Roof. It’s really structurally solid, whether or not one sort of agrees with traditions of marrying off one’s daughters. The sort of struggle of a person and their faith and the collision between generations is really… It’s built so wonderfully, that show.

And it’s really interesting. Of course, it was really not lost on me that I was teaching a musical theatre writing class in the fall and literally teaching it in a time… I was literally teaching about the importance of dramatic conflict as events were unfolding in Israel and Palestine, and it was really quite charged to be thinking about the ways that we must, as writers, represent the conflicts in the world around us.

And also, I guess Fiddler on the Roof brings up for me the incredible impact that so many Jewish writers have had innovating the form and, in a way, as a means of survival as immigrants. And at the same time, Fiddler on the Roof, literally a story about being kicked out of one’s home, and displacement being so rampant, not just in Palestine now, but in so many places around the globe. I think it’s things like that where you can see Fiddler on the Roof and find so many resonances.

I recently also learned about this Palestinian musical called The Little Lantern, Al-Fawanees. I may not be saying the Arabic name correctly, which was put on with about fifty-eight children in Ramallah in 2004, I want to say. It’s an adaptation of a short story by a very famous Palestinian writer about a princess who is charged with bringing more light into the castle when the king dies, and she can’t figure out how to do it, and she can’t capture the sun. And then finally, she issues an order for everyone with a lantern to come to the palace. And not everybody can fit, so they have to tear down the walls, and then finally, all the light enters the castle. It’s just kind of a gorgeous story. I mean, the stories that we tell matter.

Anyway, so I’m rambling. So I try to learn from anything, literally anything. I went to see Days of Wine and Roses just the other day. It was devastatingly sad, but the score was glorious, and there’s always something to learn.

I am also doing a project right now connecting with artists and scholars who work on musical-theatrical performance throughout Global South countries, because I want to learn more from what’s happening in other parts of the world, and not just Berlin and Sydney and the sort of places in the Global North that are the go-to, the London, the West End, the Broadway, the Hollywood tropes. So those are some of the things that I’m excited about learning about.

Leticia: That’s amazing. I love the reframing of learning, because I think that’s such a valuable lesson. If you’re in a classroom or out of a classroom, there’s always something to learn from everything. And it’s not a matter of like or dislike, but what can you learn from potentially your like or dislike of something? What is it that rings true to you and what doesn’t?

Masi: Yeah. And I always say… Totally. Exactly. I always say to young writers, “What we have to notice is what moves us.” What’s useful as a writer is noticing what I respond to. Then I could have something to take with me. If I really did not respond to it, I also learn something from that.

Jordan: Oh my God, that’s so incredible. Really, really great advice for folks who are looking into finding their own voices and learning. So in the spirit of that, something that we like to do to keep the learning going for folks who engage the podcast is around recommendations. And since you are our guest, Masi, we’d love to hear some recommendations you might have for folks who are really interested in continuing this conversation around musical theatre.

Masi: Yeah. I feel like I should have done my homework and thought about this a little bit more. I think in terms of what I’m looking forward to seeing, there’s a bunch of shows coming up I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to seeing Teeth by my friends Anna Jacobs and Michael R. Jackson at Playwrights Horizons. I’ve seen a number of readings of it. It’s something else, and I can’t wait for the world to experience it. Talented artists. I’m looking forward to that. Opens March eleventh, I think.

I’m looking forward to Lempicka, also some wonderful writer friends I know who’ve been working on that for quite some time. A bunch of friends have shows coming to town, Great Gatsby. And then in terms of… I’m just trying to think what… I mean, there’s a number of things I’ve seen recently that I thought were fantastic but that have closed. I thought Purlie Victorious was kind of amazing. I wonder if they filmed it, or maybe, you know—it would’ve been a great one to film, kind of like they did Trouble in Mind for PBS.

But then in terms of books, one that comes to mind… I read this really great book. There’s a media studies and Black studies scholar at the New School named Brittnay Proctor, and she has a new book out on Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden, Minnie Riperton’s album. And it’s a gorgeous… It’s a little, tiny book. It’s readable. It will not overwhelm you, and it’s so lyrically written. I think Brittnay is really so smart, and such a great writer about music and about pop. That’s sort of in my pop music studies scene. That’s one.

I’m trying to think what else I can recommend. I feel like I should have recommended more things, like I’m dropping the ball. Like I should be assigning reading to everyone. But I will say, I often post… I’m feeling… I often do post on my Insta if I’ve come across things that I really like. So you can always look for me there, @masiasare.

Jordan: Masi, always such a pleasure to hear your voice and to talk to you and learn from you. So thank you. Thank you so much for being here with us today.

Masi: Thank you so much to you both. I’m honored to be asked. Your podcast is famous. I’m very glad to be a part of it. And I can’t wait for all the great things that lie ahead for both of you as intellectuals, as cultural critics, as scholars, and making interventions in this university context, which is also not a simple place to be as a Black woman. So keep fighting the fight.

Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley—

Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we will be interviewing Tarell Alvin McCraney. You definitely won’t want to miss that. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter, @dolorrainepod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.

Leticia: Our theme music is composed by Inza Bamba. The Daughters of Lorraine podcast is supported by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It’s available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and howlround.com. If you are looking for the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify, you’ll want to search and subscribe to “Daughters of Lorraine podcast.”

Jordan: If you loved this podcast, post a rating or write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find this transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the Commons.


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